Friday, April 25, 2014

The Thirteenth Judicial Circuit 2014 Pro Bono Service Award Winners

By Rory B. Weiner

There is a saying in the Talmud that “whoever saves one life saves the whole world.” Likewise, I suggest, “whoever defends an individual’s rights defends us all.” On April 24, at the seventh annual Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Services Awards Ceremony, we honored these defenders of our rights: attorneys Wesley Tibbals, Sara Alpert, Betsy Hapner; paralegal Jan Brown; the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder; and the nonprofit legal originations of Crossroads for Florida Kids Inc. and Hillsborough County Bar Association. The award nominations were submitted to the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee, chaired by the Hon. Catherine Peek McEwen. The ceremony was sponsored by the committee, Bay Area Legal Services Volunteer Lawyers Program, and the Hillsborough County Bar Association.

Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Jimmy Kynes Pro Bono Service Award  

Wesley “Wes” Tibbals is a partner at Akerman LLP’s Tampa office, where he practices in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and labor and employment law.  He has been named a 2010-2013 Super Lawyer for his skills in business law and commercial litigation. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of Florida Levin School of Law. Since 2008, Tibbals has contributed more than 800 hours of pro bono services to the Attorney ad Litem program, representing children in the Delinquency Division.

Tibbals grew up in Umatilla, Florida, and graduated from Umatilla High School.  In 2007, he returned there to provide pro bono services to a resident who lost his mobile home in a deadly tornado. Tibbals helped resolve the resident’s legal issues and raised money to help him purchase a new mobile home and the cost of placing it on his property.

Since 2008, Tibbals has applied his compassion and legal skills to help children in Hillsborough County facing tragedy in their lives. He has served as an Attorney ad Litem in the Delinquency Division of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit. He was also one of a handful of attorneys who reliably showed up when the delinquency judges called to help children who might otherwise be alone while not conferring with their public defender.  These were children whose parents or grandparents were unable to help them when they needed it the most. Tibbals stepped in and provided more than legal assistance; he was often a “substitute parent” who listened to their problems, helped enroll them in school, get Medicaid, and complete probation requirements.

Tibbals’ modesty doesn’t allow him to reveal the actual hours he devotes to helping children. Judge Rex M. Barbas, however, has observed that “in my court alone, Wes has been here well over 100 hours in the last two years representing children.” Because Tibbals also appears in the two other delinquency courtrooms, others estimate that he contributes more than 100 hours each year and an additional 50 hours each year outside the courtroom for extended representation. After Crossroads for Florida Kids Inc. took over the Attorney ad Litem program in 2013, Tibbals mentored its principals, recruited new attorneys, and placed himself on call two days a week, sometimes more if other attorneys could not attend. Thus, since 2008, Tibbals has likely contributed more than 800 hours of pro bono services to the Attorney ad Litem program.

Outstanding Pro Bono Service by a Law Firm

Zuckerman Spaeder LLP was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1975. The firm represents individuals and businesses in complex, highly contested civil and criminal cases. It has offices in Washington, New York, Baltimore, and Tampa. The firm has been named to The National Law Journal’s Midsize Hot List every year since 2010.

Zuckerman Spaeder is a firm with a culture of pro bono service. Since the firm’s Tampa office was opened in 1991, it has contributed more than 4,600 pro bono hours. In 2013, this office of 12 attorneys contributed more than 1,200 hours of pro bono service!  As Judge Ralph Stoddard observed: “I have personally witnessed [two Zuckerman Spaeder] lawyers contribute hundreds of hours in my division, so I can only assume that the total number of hours spent by the firm is generous indeed.” 

The Tampa office’s pro bono services are wide ranging and complex. Partner Jack E. Fernandez and associates Jo Ann Palchak and Mamie Wise filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of migrant farmworkers against a Florida tomato grower who failed to pay them minimum wage. Partner Marcos Hasbun, Palchak, Wise, and Sara Alpert represented foster care children in Hillsborough County’s dependency and delinquency courts. Palchak and Wise also represent, under the supervision of Lee Fugate, a criminal defendant seeking post-conviction relief based on new evidence available from DNA testing.

Zuckerman Spaeder’s Tampa office is also involved in numerous community programs that promote pro bono. Its attorneys sit on the board and contribute to Bay Area Legal Services; assisted in the formation of Crossroads for Florida Kids Inc., which represents youths in foster care; and participate in Florida 4-H Foundation, various outreach programs such as breast cancer awareness, and the coordination of mock trials at the Academy Prep in Ybor City.

Outstanding Pro Bono Service by a Young Lawyer

Sara Alpert is an associate in the Tampa office of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.  She represents individuals and businesses in criminal and civil litigation and governmental investigations. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Law.

In 2013, Alpert contributed more than 250 pro bono hours representing two clients in foster care as a Crossroads for Florida Kids Inc. pro bono attorney. She was lead attorney representing a teenager in foster care whose parents were deceased and her relatives refused to care for her. By providing the teen legal help and personal counseling, Alpert helped her stabilize over the past year. Alpert also represented a 17-year-old girl who faced the prospect of returning to an abusive home or marrying a boy she knew for four months. Alpert helped her find an alternative by petitioning for emancipation; since then, the teen has graduated high school and is applying to colleges.

Alpert’s community involvement is extensive, having contributed about 250 hours raising awareness and securing funding for the mission of Bay Area Legal Services. She also organized the mock trial program at the Academy Prep Center in Ybor City and helped them prepare for a statewide competition.

Outstanding Pro Bono Service by a Lawyer

Elizabeth L. “Betsey” Hapner has been a sole practitioner for more than 25 years, focusing on family law, mortgage foreclosure defense, probate, and estate planning. She received her bachelor’s degree and her law degree from the University of Florida. According to Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Caroline J. Tesche, “Ms. Hapner has truly been a tireless champion in providing pro bono services in our circuit.” 

“I have seen few individuals with the dedication Betsey has toward pro bono work,” praised Judge Rex M. Barbas, “she is a shining example of what lawyers should be.” 

These accolades are well deserved. In 2013, Hapner contributed more than 550 pro bono hours assisting clients referred to her from Bay Area Legal Services. She contributed more than 170 hours representing children in the Delinquency Division and 240 hours representing seven children and young adults as a Crossroads for Florida Kids Inc. pro bono attorney. Her cases have involved real estate, paternity, probate, time sharing and child support, criminal, and probation matters.

In addition to her decades of pro bono work, Hapner has tirelessly lobbied for rule and statutory changes in the areas of juvenile law and family law. She has also generously given her time and expertise to advance the legal profession through her involvement in dozens of legal organizations and community projects.          

Outstanding Pro Bono Service by an Organization

Crossroads for Florida Kids Inc. was created in 2012 by Rosemary Armstrong as a nonprofit organization to promote and facilitate pro bono legal services for children in dependency and delinquency proceedings. It recruits volunteer attorneys and provides them training and ongoing mentoring. These pro bono attorneys meet their young clients at the crossroads of their lives and, through counseling and advocacy, help them to persevere and become productive citizens.

In 2013, Crossroads recruited more than 90 local attorneys who collectively contributed more than 3,500 pro bono hours representing 43 children in foster care and 19 teens for extended representations in the Delinquency Division. Since May 2013, Crossroads pro bono attorneys also attended the hearings and trials of approximately 150 youths in delinquency who came to their proceedings unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

Outstanding Pro Bono Service by a Paralegal

Jan L. Brown is a litigation paralegal in the Tampa office of James, Hoyer, Newcomer & Smiljanich, P.A. The firm practices in the areas of class actions, false claims, consumer, and Qui Tam law. Brown dedicates herself to helping individual clients in need and legal organizations that provide pro bono services.

In 2013, Brown provided more than 28 hours of pro bono services to clients involving foreclosure and the Hague Convention. She has been contributing this level of pro bono work for the past three years. As the Tampa Bay Paralegal Association’s Pro Bono Chair, Brown advocated the inclusion of paralegals in pro bono projects such as the Wills for Heroes Program, actively recruited paralegals to participate, and contributed more than 20 hours of pro bono services herself.

Brown has served as the paralegal liaison for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s Pro Bono Committee since 2012, spending more than 35 hours assisting with the committee’s Circuit Pro Bono Report, which is a circuit-wide compilation of pro bono activity reported to the Florida Supreme Court. With professionalism and dedication, Brown has spent more than 125 hours of service on various pro bono projects since 2011.

Special Recognition Award

The Hillsborough County Bar Association has long been a stalwart supporter of legal services for the poor. The HCBA has promoted pro bono service among its sections and committees and throughout its membership. A “Quick Link” to Pro Bono Opportunities offered by the Bay Area Legal Services Bay Area Volunteer Lawyers Program (BAVLP) is included in its weekly e-newsletter, and for more than a decade, the HCBA has provided a table at its membership luncheon meetings for use by the BAVLP staff to recruit volunteer attorneys. The HCBA has offered its meeting rooms for use by the circuit’s Pro Bono Committee for its quarterly meetings, as well as for its annual awards ceremony and reception. Furthermore, the HCBA has also sponsored the annual Jimmy Kynes Pro Bono Service Award.

When the economy took a downturn in recent years, many legal services programs throughout the nation, including BALS, suffered cutbacks in funding. This resulted in BALS’ loss of 10 staff positions. The HCBA stepped up to assist BALS in several different ways. BALS Chief Executive Officer and President Richard Woltmann recalls: “[In] order to help BALS persuade attorneys and law firms to provide philanthropic donations in a time of reductions in funding for legal services for the poor, in 2012 and 2013, the HCBA president, Bob Nader, personally wrote to the chair of every HCBA section and committee requesting that they provide time at one of their meetings for BALS representatives to explain the financial crisis faced by the organization. These presentations helped BALS increase its annual attorney giving by about $100,000 annually and helped BALS maintain critical services to its clientele.”